A few more comments on the scientific thinking thing, because it’s generated a bunch of comments. As usual, some of them are good points, and some of them have completely misunderstood what I was trying to say. so let’s take another crack at it.
While the post was worded somewhat strongly, I’m not really trying to stake out a position diametrically opposed to what Neil DeGrasse Tyson said. In fact, I suspect we agree more than we disagee. We certainly share the same broad goal, namely to see more people thinking more scientifically more often. The difference is really a question of emphasis. That is, what’s the best way to encourage people to put in the effort to think more scientifically?
Tyson, like most well-intentioned people using the “scientific thinking is hard” line, is going for a sort of “challenge is good” approach: basically trying to reassure people who think science is hard that yes, it’s a difficult thing to do, and even scientists have to work at it. This is followed by “… but it’s totally worth the effort.” You sort of soothe the concerns of people who are struggling by saying that even people who are really good at this stuff find it challenging (we do this with students a lot, and there’s often an “I got a lousy grade in this class when I took it…” anecdote to go with this), but that there’s a payoff to the effort.
My preferred approach, as I’ve tried to lay out in that post is to try to show people that the scientific approach is just like stuff that they already do all the time. Scientific thinking and scientific problem solving use exactly the same mental skills that you apply to pretty much any task more complicated than breathing. It takes some effort, to be sure, but that’s effort that most people already put out in other areas of their lives, so it’s not beyond anybody’s capabilities.
Why the difference? I have two problems with the “scientific thinking is hard” line, one societal and one attitudinal.
The societal problem is, basically, that whatever approach you take to the question of trying to get people to think more scientifically has to contend not just with individual attitudes, but with the attitudes of society as a whole. My fear is that saying “the scientific mode of thinking does not come naturally” plays far too much into existing negative stereotypes.
From a very young age, we’re bombarded with images and stories telling is that Science Is Not Natural. Mad-scientist villains are everywhere in pop culture, science nerds are the butt of endless jokes, right-wing politicians rail against “eggheads,” left-wing academics bemoan the “dehumanizing” effects of science, and on, and on. The constant message pounded in, both consciously and unconsciously, is that science is not something that ordinary people do, and that you have to be some sort of freak or prodigy to even be interested in science, let alone understand what it’s all about.
This constant negative drumbeat has amazingly far-reaching effects. I busted my ass to write a general-audience book explaining quantum physics in a way that non-scientists will be able to get something out of. And I have numerous friends and relatives who bought the book out of a sense of friendly obligation, but won’t read it. “Oh, I’ll never understand that…” they say, without really trying to read it. It drives me nuts, but it’s not their fault– they’ve spent their whole lives being told that science is something only an elite few can understand, to the point where they reject even science books specifically aimed at non-scientists.
When somebody trying to promote scientific thinking stands up and says “scientific thinking does not come naturally,” I worry that the reaction of most people is “I knew it!” I worry that they don’t continue listening to the “… but it’s totally worth it” that comes next. When you lead with “The stuff I’m about to teach you is really hard,” far too many students, and people in general, hear that as “You’re probably not capable of understanding this, and that’s okay.” Rather than reassuring people, it reinforces the stereotype that science is only for nerds and eggheads.
That’s why I prefer to try to emphasize that science is not a nerdly endeavour, but a human one. That thinking scientifically is something absolutely anybody can do, and doesn’t require some genetic-freak special mental architecture. The message I’m aiming for is “You can do this” first, and “if you put in the effort” second. If you can show people that things they already do in their everyday lives use the same mental toolkit that scientists employ, maybe we can tip some of them into thinking that science is something that perfectly normal people can do, and undercut the stereotypes a little bit. It may not turn ordinary people into scientists, but it can at least soften the messages they pass on to their kids, and get more of them to think positively about science.
The second problem I have with the “Science is hard” line is attitudinal, on the part of the people who push it. This does not apply to Neil DeGrasse Tyson specifically, who has always been extremely generous and gracious whenever I’ve seen him interacting with the general public, but lots of other public scientists fall well short of his standard. The attitudinal problem is that people running with the “scientific thinking is not natural” line too often tip over into disdain or even contempt for people who fail to reach some threshold level of scientific thinking.
It’s far too easy to go from “thinking scientifically is difficult” to “people who fail to think scientifically aren’t trying hard enough,” to “people who fail to think scientifically are lazy and/or stupid” to “people who fail to think scientifically are Bad People.” And when you make that last step, you go from potentially being part of the solution to being part of the problem. When scientists speak of non-scientists with disdain or contempt, that not only reinforces the stereotype that scientists are Different, but adds an additional element, namely “Scientists are assholes.”
This is the very core of the “Don’t Be a Dick” argument, that when you stop thinking of people who don’t think like scientists as people who are confused and in need of encouragement, and think of them instead as people who are actively Wrong, you cut yourself off from them. If the message you’re sending–explicitly or implicitly– is “People who don’t think scientifically are dumb and lazy,” most people don’t respond by saying “Wow, I better make more effort to think like a scientist,” they say “Wow, that guy’s a dick, and I want nothing to do with him.”
This is not to say that people who cynically exploit confusion and non-scientific thinking for personal gain should not be denounced. Political hacks and company spokesmen who deny global warming or spread lies about vaccinations should absolutely be countered at every turn, as emphatically as possible. Anybody who goes on tv selling magic bracelets at $20 a pop claiming their “positive frequencies” will give you special powers is a scam artist and should be run out of business. Those people are Bad People.
But the people who fall for this sort of thing aren’t Bad People, they’re just confused. And most of the time, what they deserve is not disdain and contempt but gentle (but firm) correction. That will do more good than heaping scorn on them, which will just drive them away.
Again, I’m not saying that this line of argument necessarily leads to sneering contempt, or accusing Tyson of any of this sort of behavior. And you can perfectly well get to the same position starting from my preferred approach, though I like to think it adds a step or two to the journey. But I see an awful lot of disdain and contempt out there, and I think it’s a dangerous road to start down. Put that together with the societal problem, and I cringe every time I hear somebody start talking about how scientific thinking is inherently difficult.
As I said at the beginning, I think Tyson and I would agree more than we disagree (see also some other responses to comments about the podcast). And in the clips and appearances I’ve seen by him, he’s done a really good job of walking the line between “scientific thinking is hard” and “anyone can do science.” When he fields questions about the 2012 nonsense, for example, he tends to emphasize that people can verify the scientific truth for themselves, with a tiny bit of research. I think that’s great, and just about the best approach to take with people who are being fooled by pseudo-scientific scams.
This is all really just a question of attitudes and emphasis, and what you want to lead with. I’m fairly certain we all agree about the goal, we just disagree about the best strategy for reaching it.